A military solution to an airliner problem? Not likely

A UK story about how a university research program could solve the problem of ultra long range (ULR) flights like Sydney-London non-stop is behind a terse email from an airline contact of note this morning.

It says “they haven’t a clue about operational issues” and drew attention to a discussion many years ago when Boeing was canvassing the potential of such flights with a very low seat count and very high fare service using its yet to enter service 777-200LRs.

Sydney or Melbourne non-stop to London was irreverently described as the Holy Grail of airline operations in the early to middle years of the first decade of this century, eventually being killed stone dead by dreadful economics, operational constraints and of course concerns about where the price of fuel was headed, although it hadn’t surged to the heights it reached before the recent oil price collapse.

But mid-air refuelling, as proposed by a project jointly undertaken by a group of European universities, was not the main focus of the original proposals, getting only minor references on the edge of the conversation that ensued for a number of years.

The UK report here is dated 07 April not 01. Whether the project really exists or whether Travel Weekly was hoaxed remains to be seen, since all the universities named are in bed at this hour.

But let’s assume this is real, wet behind the ears more EU funding lunacy stuff, and go back to why refuelling was an idea on the fringe of that conversation.

In no particular order a suitable candidate tanker had to be found, as airliners carry much higher payloads much further than is the case for fighter attack or bomber jets, and to have any chance of being economic, the civil tanker would need to be able to refuel multiple airliners, all in much the same part of the sky in quick succession. (Which is acknowledged in this new study).

That civil tanker would then have to be funded for its modification and certification program, the candidate jet for that being another specially converted 777 in that early century speculative conversation, if not a converted 747.

The refuelling procedures would not only require special coordination and prioritisation by ATC, but the availability of an optimum number of the airliners needing refuelling in any tightly timed interval.

Those airliners would have to be always on time, much more ‘on time’ than is the case with northern winter diversions and airport closures, and airlines would still have to pay for missed refuelling appointments to avoid sending the operator of the tanker broke, since the charges would be fixed for those airliners that turned up on time.

A question that would need urgent answers would be costs of the fuel burned to carry the fuel destined to be loaded onto the client airliners.  Part of the dismal maths of ULR flights is the need to burn a huge amount of fuel early in a flight like Sydney-London in order to arrive at the destination with legal diversionary fuel reserves, even if the city-beyond diversionary fuelling technique was used in planning the flight.

(Such as filing for a flight fuelled to Warsaw but then diverting to London at the last moment, thus arriving with just enough juice to make it to the gate without being towed. For your entertainment, your seat back video options will include a fuel gauge graphic showing how many minutes of flight remain in the tanks and which airfields might still be open within a gliding range of top of descent into London at the moment it gets closed to arrivals. )

The European team argues the case for a net fuel saving even when the tanker issues are taken on board.  But those savings would all be paid for by the tanker operator, making its services anything but inexpensive. Turning the university study into a real world commercially attractive practice would be very difficult.

Then again, the study also refers to a nuclear option, for near perpetual globe circling nuclear powered mother ships to which ‘ordinary’ airliners would transfer passenger for dropping off via other conventional airliners at the end of epic intercontinental flights.

Great idea. All we have to do is fully solve the problems of ground based nuclear power (a worthy aim) and then replicate them in a light weight aerodynamic form and the world might get a 22nd century solution to a 21st century problem.

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